An illustration of a person with circles in their head

Along with everyone else, I followed the ups and downs of a devastating pandemic that claimed the lives of many, including members of my own family. The pandemic has changed our lives, shaping what we can do, who we can see, where we can go, how we can mourn and so on. As complex systems theory teaches us, such profound changes in the very structure of life can have unpredictable consequences for individuals. Indeed, there is still great uncertainty over what the future will look like. We have been thrust into volatile times

This pandemic made evident to me what had emerged repeatedly in my research: volatility messes with our heads. Humans have evolved to be adept at meticulously looking for patterns in the world, but volatility is the opposite of pattern—it is change that follows no precise trajectory.

The type of uncertainty that develops in volatile contexts makes it impossible to predict the future with any sort of accuracy, let alone plan for it. When patterns are disrupted, humans face a peculiar situation. On the one hand, our brains may try to ignore it. Neuroscience suggests that the human brain has developed to minimize surprises.

Volatility, by definition, is marked by unexpected twists and turns, so our brains are constantly trying to tune it out. On the other hand, our bodies feel the stress that volatility brings to our pattern-seeking selves. We become more irascible, less able to focus and far less prone to sleep well.

This tension—between our brains and our bodies—leads to all sort of self-defeating behavior. For example, studies consistently find that most humans are so turned off by uncertainty that we are willing to systematically forgo better conditions in order to reduce it. This is the so-called Ellsberg Paradox. Examples of it abound. In my own field of study, scholars have found that U.S. presidents react poorly to volatility in their own approval ratings. In reaction, they engage in policies that endanger their probability of getting reelected. Our leaders, therefore, prioritize the minimization of surprises even at the expense of their own political success.

In international politics, the consequences are equally stark. Many of us react to uncertainty by drawing parallels between what we see in the present and what we have seen in the past—we engage, in other words, in analogical thinking. Analogies are potent tools: linking the present to the past helps us try to predict the future. Since we are now where we have been before, we know where we are going next—or so it might seem. In fact, analogies are dangerous in this context, because they invite inattention to nuance. For example, when we say that competition between China and the United States is a new Cold War, we forget the unprecedented level of interdependency between these two superpowers.

While I had studied the dangers of volatility before, the pandemic pushed me to think harder about what we can gain from volatility. How can we make friends with this archnemesis? That question became urgent as I prepared to teach a new introductory class on international politics. My students would have questions about interdependence among countries even as the reality of global interdependence was turning their lives upside down. The stakes were high. The experience of the pandemic, I was sure, would shape their thinking about international politics, and perhaps even influence their decisions one day on whether to take an active part in the global arena.

In the classroom, I made it a priority to acknowledge the volatility that surrounded us. And as we talked about the ever-changing relationship between China and the U.S., we tried—and failed—to predict what would happen next in that high-stakes relationship. We found it frightening not to know.

On the last day of class, I asked students what volatility can teach us. We were there, some of us in person and others connecting from all over the world. At first, my students were silent. But then I saw a number of hands go up, and as these students began to talk, more and more of their classmates raised their hands, too. My question had struck a chord.

In class that day, my students and I discovered that volatility can inspire reflection. We considered how rarely change follows a specific pattern, how we hardly ever live in the exact same world twice. We realized that we can thrive in the face of volatility if we take it for what it really is—an opportunity to explore something we have never experienced before, to live a life we have never lived before, to learn things we have never known before. Volatility will always annoy our surprise-minimizing
brains. But it can also titillate our innate curiosity and strengthen our compassion for one another.

Volatility will emerge and emerge again, as it always does, at times in extreme forms. Indeed, some would argue it never leaves us. But armed with a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities volatility offers, we can be better ready for it.

Mattiacci is an assistant professor of political science at Amherst. Her book, Volatile States in International Politics, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Illustration by Ard Su